Perhaps we should cut the guy some slack? To be hyped as "the most exciting and gifted young conductor of our times" when you are facing your first recording with the "legendary Berlin Philharmonic", is anything but helpful. Surely, everybody is expecting you to move the earth. But even so, with everything reset to human proportions, it's still a fact that Gustavo Dudamel's debut disc with the Berlin Philharmonic in a well-tried Richard Strauss triple bill isn't bound to move much.
As soon Also Sprach Zarathustra gets under way, it becomes clear that the Venezuelan conductor has little or no affinity with this music. His reading is fragmented and lacks all sense of evocation, let alone mystery or expectation (just try the Song of the Grave). Dudamel has a superlative Berlin Philharmonic at his disposal, moreover recorded quite spectacularly and with plenty of detail during concerts at the Philharmonie, yet Strauss' brilliant orchestration remains merely superficial and only occasionally adds to the narrative sweep. For the most Dudamel seems hesitant and the lapses of tension are about as numerous as the stars on the CD cover. We admire the jewel-box, but we are disappointed to find it empty.
The other two tone poems are cut from the same cloth. Till Eulenspiegel's pranks are anything but merry here and the sonic outbursts sound nervous instead of elated, downplaying any deeper expressivity. Don Juan has to be one of the most listless ever put to disc at this level. Surprisingly, this is an old man's Don Juan, who stammers and has trouble focusing, threatening to babble his ladies to sleep. The opulence of the orchestra cannot prevail the boredom that runs through these pages.
For a better understanding of Strauss' world, old references still hold. Think of Rudolf Kempe with the Staatskapelle Dresden, Fritz Reiner with the Chicago Symphony, and before we forget, Herbert von Karajan, whose repeated recordings of these symphonic poems with the Berlin Philharmonic have stood the test of time, even to such extent that any listening experience back to back with Dudamel's attempt is seriously dissuaded. At the end of the day, "The Dude" may radiate tons of charm and energy in concert, yet a CD is a totally different listening experience.
Judging by the CD design the DG art department still thinks that Also Sprach Zarathustra should be associated with space exploration as has been done ad nauseam since Stanley Kubrick's 1968 groundbreaking movie used the opening to superb effect. What exactly they are trying to tell with it now, however, is as inscrutable as deep space and cannot prevent that Dudamel's Strauss is more Alien than 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Copyright © 2013, Marc Haegeman